The Iranian crisis continues to dominate the news in the US and Israel with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak repeatedly stating that an Israeli assault on Iranian nuclear installations was likely within months. The New York Times described the debate as being dominated by the hawkish elements in Congress and among Israel’s friends in the US.
President Barack Obama’s warning against the unintended consequences of ‘casual talk’ of war was echoed by two respected European figures.
Carl Bildt and Erkki Tuomioja, foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland respectively, wrote on March 20 in the New York Times warning that an attack against Iran would be “a clear violation of the charter of the United Nations.” It could also have “severely negative repercussions” in the region. They urged that diplomacy be recognised as ‘the only alternative’ for a sustainable solution. The other options are, they concluded, “recipes for war.”
At about the same time the New York Times revealed that an American classified war simulation, called Internal Look, had been held earlier this month. It forecasts that an Israeli assault on Iran would lead to a wider regional war and drag the US into the war leaving hundreds of Americans dead.
However the Iranian crisis may ultimately be solved, and I personally subscribe to the view expressed by the two European ministers and quoted above, the Iranian crisis marks a turning point in the history of conflict.
And that is because of the unique nature of the undeclared war of sabotage, subversion and assassination that is being waged against Iran. This covert war includes the cloak and dagger materials of traditional espionage, but it also includes a weapon of sabotage that marks the beginning of a new form of warfare that may very well change the nature of traditional warfare -- possibly in more dramatic ways than what the artillery, the aircraft and the submarine did for conventional warfare.
The new weapon of sabotage used against Iran is a most nefarious computer virus named Stuxnet that was programmed to disable specific systems controlling Iranian centrifuges (used to enrich uranium), causing them to malfunction while fooling the Iranian operators into believing that the equipment was functioning well.
Stuxnet may have been the first computer virus to be weaponised in the sense that it was not intended, like other viruses, to deny access or steal information; it was designed to disrupt command and control of industrial or military installations with unforeseen consequences.
The New York Times revealed that Stuxnet was prepared by Israel and the United States — with help from the Germans and the British — and tested in Israel.
Stuxnet caused significant damage to some 3,000 Iranian computers and it is speculated that it set back the Iranian nuclear programme.
If this is confirmed, the implications can be mindboggling. First of all, this is a frontal attack against the sovereign state and its heretofore unchallenged monopoly of the instruments of violence. Since anyone with a computer and the necessary knowledge can wreak havoc on the institutions of the state itself. Or a one-man army can direct its disruptive malice or anger against the institutions of another state.
Second, the traditional army, especially in the industrialised world, will lose much of its relevance unless it continues to function as the guardians of imperial interests — as the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan testifies. That is because the ability to disrupt may preempt the enemy’s ability to attack and destroy.
Third, the ability to cause massive disruption can be cheaply developed without a huge military that has to be equipped, fed, trained and given a mission. A weaponised computer virus capable of mass disruption requires only readily available computers and readily available knowledge. The conventional army with all its expenses relies on sheer force (lethality of weapons and number of soldiers); a weaponised computer virus relies on brain power.
This brings a sense of equality to all since brain power is readily available and unlike conventional power does not depend on the size of territory, population or level of industrialisation, or sophistication of weapons.
A superpower like the United States may be vulnerable to cyber attacks from a much smaller country. This was in fact confirmed recently. General Keith Alexander, US Cyber Command, was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as having told a Congressional committee that it was only a matter of time before the US was subjected to a cyber attack of the destructive nature of Stuxnet. Alexander called for international agreements to regulate the use of cyber-war technology.
Take the case of the Iranian crisis, for instance. Measured by conventional power, Israel and the United States are undoubtedly far superior to Iran. But the gap narrows when brain power is the measurement.
The level of sophistication and technological development that went into ‘arming’ Stuxnet attests to the high degree of technological sophistication of the US and Israel.
But consider the case of the American stealth drone that was spying on Iran, and the Iranians — to the surprise of the Americans — managed to exploit navigational weaknesses and guide the pilotless plane to land in Iran.
Consider the implications of the Iranians being in possession of classified information about the systems onboard the US President’s Marine One helicopter.
Or consider the ability of groups or even a single individual being able to weaponise a virus and direct it at sensitive installations of another country.
This is what happened when a Saudi hacker, identifying himself as oxOmar, posted the details of more than 20,000 Israeli credit cards, and later disrupted access to the sites of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and to the Israeli national airline, El Al.
Never since the establishment of Israel in 1948 has an Arab country — let alone an Arab individual — had that kind of disruptive penetrability to the very basic installations of Israeli society, and indeed to the very notion of a fortress armed to the teeth.
Adel Safty is Distinguished Visiting Professor and Special Advisor to the Rector at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia His book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky, and published in England by Garnet, 2009.